Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Lessons from Last Night

We Democrats have to learn a few things from last night's result. Martha Coakley lost the election for more reasons than I can get into here--and that's not really the point of this post anyway--but some of those reasons will come back to haunt us again in November if we don't do something about it now.

We have to assume that all contests will be hotly contested, high-turnout affairs and campaign as though we are behind, no matter what. Senator-elect Brown's victory has Republicans feeling like anything is possible. At every level, in every district, we need to assume that without using every tool we have we are going to lose. We cannot afford to say "Well, if we get enough votes here then we can afford to lose there..." We have to contest every vote.

We have to simplify the message. For instance, the discussion in this campaign should not have been about "Obama's health care plan." It should have been about prohibiting insurers from denying coverage due to preexisting conditions. It should have been about guaranteeing that if you get sick, your insurer can't drop your coverage. It should have been about expanding drug coverage for Seniors. It should have been about allowing 55-64 year olds the chance to buy into Medicare. There are dozens of good, popular things in that bill, but Coakley never spoke about them in simple, specific terms. We need to break our issues down to simple, easy to understand points and hammer away on those points.

We have to define our opponents and fight the campaign on our terms. Martha Coakley should have been out the day after the primary with a commercial similar to my video endorsement. She should have looked straight into the camera and told the people of Massachusetts what she stood for, and how that was different from Brown's position. Set a narrative about yourself and your opponent and make the opponent work to change people's minds.

We have to give people an affirmative reason to vote for our candidates; voting against the other guy isn't good enough. Did Coakley ever tell you why she wanted to be our Senator? Did she ever outline a rationale for her campaign? Anyone could have run under the mantle of carrying on Ted Kennedy's legacy and saving the President's agenda. In the end, people needed a reason to vote for Coakley and she never gave it to them. The entire theme of the Coakley campaign the last 10 days was "Don't vote for that scary Republican." That rarely works, and since Brown had already defined himself (see previous point), it was particularly ineffective this time.

We have to ask people for their votes. It seems like that should go unsaid, but did Coakley ever look you straight in the eye (through the magic of TV, or in person) and tell you she needed your vote? We cannot win on principles and issues alone. While those are extremely important, in the end we are electing a person, not an issue. That person needs to ask for our votes.

"Get out the vote" can't mean someone gets out the vote for us, it has to mean our candidates get out the vote themselves. Those of us who work on campaigns can hold signs and phone bank and all of that, but the candidate has to get on the ground in those areas where the base is. By and large, the urban centers had lower turnout than the suburbs and if Coakley was going to win, she needed those areas to turnout in high numbers. The people working the phones worked very hard to get folks out, but how many days did Coakley spend shaking hands in Senior Centers in Worcester, or Community Centers in Springfield, or in Churches in Roxbury? The point is that our candidates cannot take our reliable Democratic votes for granted, for fear that they may not be so reliable after all.

We have to ignore the "fundamentals." Every statistical model, every historical campaign, every last piece of data pointed to an easy Coakley win. We all believed it. Worse, the campaign believed it. We cannot afford to wake up after primary day this September and think "If all the Dems who came out for the primary vote in November, we can't lose." If it takes us until the end of October to get in gear, it will be too late.

Finally, those of us who are not candidates can't wait for our candidates to do the right thing. Unfortunately, some of our favorite people will need to be dragged kicking and screaming out to shake hands and meet with town and ward committees and work the phones with us and work to get themselves reelected. We have to get organized and motivated and committed NOW. Every town and ward committee has a role to play. Write letters to the editors of your newspapers touting your candidates. Find out what your opponent stands for and gently (but firmly) question him or her about it. Call your neighbors. Hold house parties. Whatever you can do. But do not wait until mid-September to get moving.

Yesterday is over. It is what it is. It's our job to make sure it doesn't happen again.
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